Maude Vance has a habit of looking at you, eyebrows raised, like you better make it quick. Her answers roll off her tongue with encyclopedic precision. She’s smart. Like really, really smart, and we are losing her to Alaska where she will continue her career in Ob/GYN. It turns out that Dr. Vance has been in love with Alaska since she traveled there at age 17 to work for Earth Watch. Upon returning home, she declared to her mother that she would one day move there. We are lucky to have kept her here so long!
Dr. Vance grew up in San Diego, California, and migrated east for college and zeroed in on what it would take to get into medical school. “I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was 13 because I had an interaction with a doctor and I thought to myself, ‘I could be a better doctor than you.’” The experience stuck with her and shaped who she would become as a physician. “I never wanted a patient to feel the way I did with that doctor; completely devalued, disempowered, and an idiot.”
She graduated in 2000 from the University of California at Davis with a PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology, and from the University of California School of Medicine in 2002. As if you need more to admire, she was also juggling the care of two young children while completing her education. Wasn’t medical school enough?” I ask. “No, I missed research,” she replies with a shrug. She was the first student at UC Davis to graduate with this dual MD and PhD degree, a test case in what was possible.
At noon, Maude Vance knocks on my office door, “Okay, where are we doing this?” I welcome her into my office and she sits down in the big deep chair usually occupied by lactation patients. “What do you want to know?” she asks. “As much as you want to tell me,” I answer. I have a list of questions, but doctors are practiced in the short and sweet, succinct and thorough, rarely verbose and narrative. “I think I already have a framework,” I tell her, “I just need you to fill in the blanks.” She begins and five minutes in, I am already reworking what I will write.
I want to talk about her spectacular academic and career achievements, all of the babies she has delivered, her most difficult cases, her favorite surgery (all of them except post-partum tubal ligations). I want to honor how much she studied, how hard she worked to become who she is but during our conversation it’s her the touching way she describes her relationships with people that resonates the most for me.
She describes swallowing back tears as she said her goodbyes during well-woman exams and how meaningful it was to provide care across the spectrum of womanhood. “These are people that I have been caring for people for 10 years. We talk about personal things, sexual function, hormones… how you are integrating your life. Babies, not babies. Menopause, grandbabies, geriatrics, we do it all. And now suddenly I’m saying goodbye and I’m not going to see you again next year at your annual exam. It’s hard, a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
When Dr. Vance became the single mother of two children, the care and well-being of them became the driving force in her life. Just as she had done in college, she set about creating the life that she wanted to give them, which meant creating the community in which she wanted to raise them. It is clear that that the friendships she invested in became the structure that sustained her growth personally and professionally. When I ask her what she will miss the most about Colorado she answers simply, “my tribe.”
How well you are loved is a measure of what kind of person you are and it is evident in the months leading up to her goodbye that Dr. Vance is a pretty great person because none of us, and certainly not her patients, approve of her moving to Alaska. Her nurse Mandi, who I have come to know as unflappable and always kind, has been with her for ten years. They mirror each other when they look up over their glasses reflecting each other’s wit, sarcasm, and intelligence. Mandi and Maude have a symbiosis that comes from years of work and mutual respect. Dr. Vance’s departure marks the end of a decade of work together and defines a new chapter in their friendship. How you treat the people who work for you is also a measure of what kind of person you are and Mandi’s years of dedication indicate that Dr. Vance is as good to her employees as she is to her patients.
At the time of our interview she is one week away from her last day at the Women’s Clinic. Her home has been sold, her belongings have been moved and she is in a temporary rental. When she leaves next Wednesday she’ll get in her RV with her husband and dogs and begin the drive to Anchorage, Alaska, where she will begin a new life. We teased her a lot in the months leading up to her departure. There are jokes about taking a snowmobile to work, fending off bears on the way to the grocery store and the joke with the most truth: “there is still time to change your mind.”
Dr. Vance describes herself as blunt. Her patients describe her as funny, no-nonsense, and immensely trustworthy as a physician. Dr. Vance spends at least five minutes telling me that her practice style is more straight to the point, question and answer format which she perceives as off-putting to someone looking for a softer touch. The women sitting in front of me might be blunt and to the point but she is as kind as she is smart, and she understands people, and more importantly understanding people is important to her. She speaks at length about what good patient care means to her and how treating women is a responsibility that she takes great pride in doing with genuineness. She values the diversity of personalities and she has an acute understanding that everyone has a story that makes them who they are. When she discusses her life, her work, her friends, her husband, step-children and children she softens. There is both calmness and tenderness in her reflection of the last 12 years. Her tone is gracious for what she has had here and hopeful for what is yet to come. “You make your tribe where you are. You make your personal tribe and your professional tribe. I made a tribe here that is a combination of professional and personal and that’s the hardest part of saying goodbye.”
After her last patient on her last day, she was saying good-bye to everyone. Mandi describes herself as “a crying mess,” and finally said, “ I just need you to leave. You can’t stand here anymore.” She looked at Mandi and said, “okay I am leaving before I fall apart!” And with that, she turned and walked out the door, the end of 12 years with us at The Women’s Clinic and the beginning of a new story on the last frontier.